Pentagon opens civilian hall of fame

New permanent display honors “heroic bureaucrats.”

Many of the Pentagon's halls and corridors are filled with exhibits honoring military leaders and Defense Department pioneers. Army Gen. Colin Powell's war ribbons and a replica of Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famed pipe are displayed. Navajo Indians are recognized for their work as "code talkers" during World War II, as are African Americans who fought during the Civil War. And now, Defense civilians are being honored with a new display in the largest federal building.

"The term 'heroic bureaucrat' is not one you read in a newspaper or hear from pundits on television," said Raymond DuBois, the Pentagon's director of administration and management, at a ceremony opening the new permanent exhibit on Tuesday. But, he said, the term applies to many of the nearly 700,000 civilians who work throughout the Defense Department.

DuBois said he recommended the creation of the exhibit as a way to honor David O. "Doc" Cooke, his civilian predecessor who served five decades as the "Mayor of the Pentagon" before his death in 2002. The exhibit was put together by military and Defense Department historians over the past year.

"Civilians are our backbone," said Charles Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness.

The exhibit consists of a series of glass panels containing photographs, artifacts and quotations that trace more than 200 years of civil service achievements. Defense civilians are credited with designing the Navy's first ships, running munitions arsenals and helping defend Washington from Confederate troops during the Civil War.

The exhibit also highlights technological discoveries made by Defense civilian employees, such as the global positioning system and improved safety equipment for fighter pilots. Even in-house critics receive their due. A Time magazine cover from the early 1980s, featuring now-retired Defense analyst Chuck Spinney questioning the Reagan defense buildup, is on display. "That's part of the story," said DuBois, when asked about a civil servant who the military brass long sought to silence.

The display singles out nine Defense civilians as "exemplars" of federal service. The workers, whose service spans 250 years, have their portraits enshrined in gold on black metal panels with their biographies below. Honorees include Cooke; Judith Gilliom, a disabled worker who managed and championed Defense disability programs and was among the first federal telecommuters in the 1980s; and Charles Nemfakos, a former Navy financial and budget manager who won an unprecedented three Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Medals.

Nemfakos, now a Defense consultant, admitted he felt "awkward" and "uncomfortable" seeing his portrait hanging in a Pentagon corridor, but was pleased that civil servants were being recognized. "The Defense Department really is a civilian and military partnership, so it's really nice that we are recognizing it in a specific way," he said.

For a description of each of the honored civilians, click here.

DuBois said that every 10 years, the most senior civilians in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Office of the Secretary of Defense will meet and consider whether any retired Defense workers who served within the previous two decades should be added to the display. Said Dubois: "It's kind of like the Baseball Hall of Fame."